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Context of 'October 1996-Late April 1999: Hani Hanjour Associates with FBI Suspects'

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Harry Ellen.Harry Ellen. [Source: Associated Press]Harry Ellen, a businessman who converted to Islam, has high credibility with Muslims in Arizona because of his work on behalf of the Palestinian cause. He has had important meetings with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In 1994, he began working as an FBI informant. Ken Williams, the Phoenix FBI agent who will later write the July 2001 “Phoenix memo”(see July 10, 2001), is his handler. In October 1996, Ellen tells Williams that he has suspicions about an Algerian pilot who is training other Middle Eastern men to fly. He later recalls, “My comment to Williams was that it would be pitiful if the bad guys were able to gain this kind of access to airplanes, flight training and crop dusters. I said, ‘You really ought to look at this, it’s an interesting mix of people.’” Ellen had previously begun spying on a man known as Abu Sief, which apparently is his alias. Sief had come to Arizona from New Jersey in 1993, and bragged about having close ties with al-Qaeda figures Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman and Ramzi Yousef (when Yousef’s computer is seized in the Philippines in 1995, there is a mention of a contact in Tucson, Arizona, but it is unknown if this is a reference to Sief or someone else (see January 7-11, 1995)). Sief attended a New Jersey mosque that many of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers also attended. Ellen soon sees the unnamed Algerian pilot meeting with Abu Sief. He tells this to Williams and later will claim, “I told him to be very concerned about air schools.” However, Ellen will claim that Williams responds by telling him to “leave it alone.” So he does. Ellen later believes that Williams should have sent the gist of his Phoenix memo at this time, instead of four and a half years later. Hani Hanjour is living in Phoenix by this time and taking flight training nearby (see October 1996-Late April 1999). Ellen later will say he did not know Hanjour directly, but he knew some of his friends and relatives. Ellen and Williams will have a falling out in late 1998 on an unrelated manner, and Ellen’s flow of information will stop. [Washington Post, 5/24/2002; New York Times, 5/24/2002; Lance, 2003, pp. 211, 352-355, inset 21]

Entity Tags: Ramzi Yousef, Harry Ellen, Ken Williams, Abu Sief, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Omar Abdul-Rahman

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

On several occasion between 1996 and 1999, future 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour attends flight schools in Arizona (see October 1996-December 1997 and 1998). The 9/11 Commission will later note, “It is clear that when Hanjour lived in Arizona in the 1990s, he associated with several individuals who have been the subject of counterterrorism investigations.” Some of the time, he is accompanied by two friends, Bandar Al Hazmi and Rayed Abdullah. Al Hazmi and Abdullah have been friends with each other in high school in Saudi Arabia, but it is not known if either knew Hanjour before moving to the US. Al Hazmi and Hanjour are roommates for a time. Al Hazmi will finish his training and leave the US for the last time in January 2000 (he apparently will be interviewed overseas in 2004). Abdullah becomes a leader of a Phoenix mosque where he reportedly gives extremist speeches. He will continue to train with Hanjour occasionally through the summer of 2001. The FBI apparently will investigate him in May 2001. He will repeatedly be questioned by authorities after 9/11, then move to Qatar. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission will report that the FBI remains suspicious of Al Hazmi and Abdullah, but neither man is charged with any crime. The 9/11 Commission will also imply that another of Hanjour’s Arizona associates is al-Qaeda operative Ghassan al Sharbi. Al Sharbi will be arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002). He apparently is a target of Ken Williams’s “Phoenix memo”(see July 10, 2001). Another associate of Hanjour’s, Hamed al Sulami, is in telephone contact with a radical Saudi imam who is said to be the spiritual advisor to al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida. This imam may have a role in recruiting some of the 9/11 hijackers. Abdulaziz Alomari, for instance, was a student of this imam. It seems that al Sulami is also a target of Williams’s memo. [Washington Post, 9/10/2002; US Congress, 9/26/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 233, 520-521, 529]

Entity Tags: Rayed Abdullah, Hani Hanjour, Bandar Al Hazmi, Ghassan al Sharbi, Hamed al Sulamis

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Sawyer Aviation logo.Sawyer Aviation logo. [Source: Sawyer Aviation]In January 1998, future 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour and his friend Bandar Al Hazmi, who are now renting an apartment together in Phoenix, Arizona, train together at Arizona Aviation flight school. Hanjour supposedly receives his commercial pilot rating while there. [US Congress, 9/26/2002] Later in 1998, Hanjour joins the simulator club at Sawyer School of Aviation in Phoenix. According to the Washington Post, Sawyer is “known locally as a flight school of last resort.” Wes Fults, the manager of the flight simulator, says Hanjour has “only the barest understanding what the instruments were there to do.” After using the simulator four or five times, Hanjour disappears from the school. [Washington Post, 10/15/2001]

Entity Tags: Wes Fults, Sawyer School of Aviation, Bandar Al Hazmi, Arizona Aviation flight school, Hani Hanjour

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Hani Hanjour.Hani Hanjour. [Source: US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division]While most evidence places future 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour on the East Coast in the summer of 2001, Hanjour may undergo some flight training in Phoenix, Arizona, as well. Hanjour trained at the Sawyer School of Aviation previously (see 1998), and there is some evidence he returns there. One school document records Hanjour’s name for use of a flight simulator on June 23, 2001, though his name does not appear on payment records. Faisal al-Salmi, Rayed Abdullah, and Lotfi Raissi also use the flight simulator this day. Al-Salmi will later be convicted of lying about his associations with Hanjour (see February 15, 2002). Abdullah had moved with Hanjour from Florida in 1997, and is known for giving extremist speeches at a Phoenix mosque (see October 1996-Late April 1999). Raissi will later be suspected of involvement in the 9/11 plot, then cleared (see September 21, 2001). There are also indications that Hanjour signs up to use a flight simulator in August with three other Muslim men, including al-Salmi. One Sawyer employee is fairly certain she sees Hanjour during the summer. Another witness sees Hanjour with al-Salmi elsewhere in Phoenix. The 9/11 Commission will note that the evidence of Hanjour training in Phoenix during the summer is not definitive, but “the FBI’s Phoenix office believes it is plausible that Hanjour return[s] to Arizona for additional training.” [New York Times, 5/24/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 529] On July 10, 2001, Phoenix FBI agent Ken Williams sends a memorandum to FBI headquarters urging a nationwide check on Middle Eastern students at flight schools (see July 10, 2001), but apparently neither Williams nor anyone else actually conducts any kind of check on Phoenix flight schools at this time (see July 10-September 11, 2001).

Entity Tags: Sawyer School of Aviation, Rayed Abdullah, Lotfi Raissi, Faisal al-Salmi, Hani Hanjour, 9/11 Commission, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ken Williams

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

FBI agent Ken Williams.FBI agent Ken Williams. [Source: FBI]Phoenix, Arizona, FBI agent Ken Williams sends a memorandum warning about suspicious activities involving a group of Middle Eastern men taking flight training lessons in Arizona. The memo is titled: “Zakaria Mustapha Soubra; IT-OTHER (Islamic Army of the Caucasus),” because it focuses on Zakaria Soubra, a Lebanese flight student in Prescott, Arizona, and his connection with a terror group in Chechnya that has ties to al-Qaeda. It is subtitled: “Osama bin Laden and Al-Muhjiroun supporters attending civil aviation universities/colleges in Arizona.” [Fortune, 5/22/2002; Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] Williams’ memo is based on an investigation of Sorba that Williams had begun in 2000 (see April 2000), but he had trouble pursuing because of the low priority the Arizona FBI office gave terror investigations (see April 2000-June 2001). Additionally, Williams had been alerted to suspicions about radical militants and aircraft at least three other times (see October 1996; 1998; November 1999-August 2001). In the memo, Williams does the following:
bullet Names nine other suspect students from Pakistan, India, Kenya, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002] Hijacker Hani Hanjour, attending flight school in Arizona in early 2001 and probably continuing into the summer of 2001 (see Summer 2001), is not one of the students, but, as explained below, it seems two of the students know him. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file; Washington Post, 7/25/2003]
bullet Notes that he interviewed some of these students, and heard some of them make hostile comments about the US. Additionally, he noticed that they were suspiciously well informed about security measures at US airports. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002]
bullet Notes an increasing, “inordinate number of individuals of investigative interest” taking flight lessons in Arizona. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file]
bullet Suspects that some of the ten people he has investigated are connected to al-Qaeda. [US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] One person on the list, Ghassan al Sharbi, will be arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 with al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida (see March 28, 2002). Al Sharbi attended a flight school in Prescott, Arizona. He also apparently attended the training camps in Afghanistan and swore loyalty to bin Laden in the summer of 2001. He apparently knows Hani Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). He also is the roommate of Soubra, the main target of the memo. [Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 521]
bullet Discovers that one of them was communicating through an intermediary with Abu Zubaida. This apparently is a reference to Hamed al Sulami, who had been telephoning a Saudi imam known to be Zubaida’s spiritual advisor. Al Sulami is an acquaintance of Hanjour in Arizona (see October 1996-Late April 1999). [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 520-521, 529]
bullet Discusses connections between several of the students and a radical group called Al-Muhajiroun. [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002] This group supported bin Laden, and issued a fatwa, or call to arms, that included airports on a list of acceptable terror targets. [Associated Press, 5/22/2002] Soubra, the main focus of the memo, is a member of Al-Muhajiroun and an outspoken radical. He met with Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, the leader of Al-Muhajiroun in Britain, and started an Arizona chapter of the organization. After 9/11, some US officials will suspect that Soubra has ties to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He will be held two years, then deported to Lebanon in 2004. [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001; Los Angeles Times, 1/24/2003; Arizona Republic, 5/2/2004; Arizona Monthly, 11/2004] Though Williams doesn’t include it in his memo, in the summer of 1998, Bakri publicized a fax sent by bin Laden to him that listed al-Qaeda’s four objectives in fighting the US. The first objective was “bring down their airliners.” (see Summer 1998). [Los Angeles Times, 10/28/2001]
bullet Warns of a possible “effort by Osama bin Laden to send students to the US to attend civil aviation universities and colleges” [Fortune, 5/22/2002] , so they can later hijack aircraft. [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002]
bullet Recommends that the “FBI should accumulate a listing of civil aviation universities and colleges around the country. FBI field offices with these types of schools in their area should establish appropriate liaison. FBI [headquarters] should discuss this matter with other elements of the US intelligence community and task the community for any information that supports Phoenix’s suspicions.” [Arizona Republic, 7/24/2003] (The FBI has already done this, but because of poor FBI communications, Williams is not aware of the report.)
bullet Recommends that the FBI ask the State Department to provide visa data on flight school students from Middle Eastern countries, which will facilitate FBI tracking efforts. [New York Times, 5/4/2002]
The memo is addressed to the following FBI Agents:
bullet Dave Frasca, chief of the Radical Fundamentalist Unit (RFU) at FBI headquarters;
bullet Elizabeth Harvey Matson, Mark Connor and Fred Stremmel, Intelligence Operations Specialists in the RFU;
bullet Rod Middleton, acting chief of the Usama bin Laden Unit (UBLU);
bullet Jennifer Maitner, an Intelligence Operations Specialist in the UBLU;
bullet Jack Cloonan, an agent on the New York FBI’s bin Laden unit, the I-49 squad; (see January 1996 and Spring 2000).
bullet Michael S. Butsch, an agent on another New York FBI squad dealing with other Sunni terrorists. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 7/10/2001 pdf file; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file]
However, the memo is not uploaded into the FBI’s information system until the end of the month and is apparently not received by all these people (see July 27, 2001 and after). Williams also shares some concerns with the CIA (see (July 27, 2001)). [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002] One anonymous government official who has seen the memo says, “This was as actionable a memo as could have been written by anyone.” [Insight, 5/27/2002] However, the memo is merely marked “routine,” rather than “urgent.” It is generally ignored, not shared with other FBI offices, and the recommendations are not taken. One colleague in New York replies at the time that the memo is “speculative and not very significant.” [Die Zeit (Hamburg), 10/1/2002; US Congress, 7/24/2003, pp. 135 pdf file] Williams is unaware of many FBI investigations and leads that could have given weight to his memo. Authorities later claim that Williams was only pursuing a hunch, but one familiar with classified information says, “This was not a vague hunch. He was doing a case on these guys.” [Mercury News (San Jose), 5/23/2002]

Entity Tags: Jennifer Maitner, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Fred Stremmel, Ghassan al Sharbi, Hani Hanjour, I-49, Jack Cloonan, Elizabeth Matson, Islamic Army of the Caucasus, David Frasca, Michael Butsch, Al-Muhajiroun, Zakaria Mustapha Soubra, Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, Al-Qaeda, Rod Middleton, Osama bin Laden, Radical Fundamentalist Unit, Mark Connor, Ken Williams, Abu Zubaida

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The FBI’s New York field office, which specializes in international terrorism, receives Ken Williams’ Phoenix Memo, but only briefly checks the named radicals and does not respond to Williams. In the memo, Williams noted that there is a suspiciously large number of Islamic extremists learning to fly in Arizona. Some of them will turn out to be connected to 9/11 hijacker Hani Hanjour (see July 10, 2001). Williams sent the memo to FBI headquarters (see July 27, 2001 and after) and the I-49 squad in the New York FBI field office. In New York, the memo is read by FBI agent Jack Cloonan, a member of the I-49 squad. Cloonan believes that the memo has a “glaring deficiency,” as he thinks bin Laden does not have a support operation in Arizona any more. He forms the opinion that William’s theory and conclusions are “faulty.” However, two of the hijackers were in Arizona in early 2001 (see December 12, 2000-March 2001) and some of the people named in the memo will later be linked to bin Laden (see October 1996-Late April 1999). In August 2001, Cloonan will ask, “Who’s going to conduct the thirty thousand interviews? When the f_ck do we have time for this?” Nonetheless, he checks out the eight names mentioned in the memo. He will apparently find nothing, although several individuals associated with the Phoenix cell are Sunni extremists (see November 1999-August 2001). The memo is also read by an analyst and an auditor in New York while they are researching other matters, and Cloonan will tell the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) he may have discussed the memo with some of his colleagues. The OIG’s report will say Cloonan told investigators that “he did not contact Williams or anyone else in Phoenix to discuss the [memo].” However, in a 2006 book author Lawrence Wright, citing an interview with Cloonan, will say that Cloonan spoke to Williams’ supervisor in Phoenix about it. [US Department of Justice, 11/2004, pp. 77-9 pdf file; Wright, 2006, pp. 350, 426] The I-49 squad possibly forwards the memo to the Alec Station bin Laden unit at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (see (July 27, 2001)).

Entity Tags: I-49, Office of the Inspector General (DOJ), Jack Cloonan, Ken Williams

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

The house in Faisalabad, Pakistan, where Abu Zubaida is arrested.The house in Faisalabad, Pakistan, where Abu Zubaida is arrested. [Source: New York Times]Al-Qaeda leader Abu Zubaida is captured in Faisalabad, Pakistan. He is the first al-Qaeda leader considered highly important to be captured or killed after 9/11.
Zubaida Injured during Raid - A joint team from the FBI, the CIA, and the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence agency, raids the house where Zubaida is staying. Around 3 a.m., the team breaks into the house. Zubaida and three others wake up and rush to the rooftop. Zubaida and the others jump to a neighbor’s roof where they are grabbed by local police who are providing back-up for the capture operation. One of Zubaida’s associates manages to grab a gun from one of the police and starts firing it. A shoot-out ensues. The associate is killed, several police are wounded, and Zubaida is shot three times, in the leg, stomach, and groin. He survives. About a dozen other suspected al-Qaeda operatives are captured in the house, and more are captured in other raids that take place nearby at the same time. [New York Times, 4/14/2002; Suskind, 2006, pp. 84-89] US intelligence had slowly been closing in on Zubaida’s location for weeks, but accounts differ as to exactly how he was found (see February-March 28, 2002). He had surgically altered his appearance and was using an alias, so it takes a few days to completely confirm his identity. [New York Times, 9/10/2006]
Link to Pakistani Militant Group - A later US State Department report will mention that the building Zubaida is captured in is actually a Lashkar-e-Toiba safehouse. Lashkar-e-Toiba is a Pakistani militant group with many links to al-Qaeda, and it appears to have played a key role in helping al-Qaeda operatives escape US forces in Afghanistan and find refuge in Pakistan (see Late 2001-Early 2002). [US Department of State, 4/30/2008]
Rendition - Not long after his arrest, Zubaida is interrogated by a CIA agent while he is recovering in a local hospital (see Shortly After March 28, 2002). He then is rendered to a secret CIA prison, where he is interrogated and tortured (see Mid-May 2002 and After). Throughout his detention, members of the National Security Council and other senior Bush administration officials are briefed about Zubaida’s captivity and treatment. [Senate Intelligence Committee, 4/22/2009 pdf file]
Is Zubaida a High-Ranking Al-Qaeda Leader? - Shortly after the arrest, the New York Times reports that “Zubaida is believed by American intelligence to be the operations director for al-Qaeda and the highest-ranking figure of that group to be captured since the Sept. 11 attacks.” [New York Times, 4/14/2002] But it will later come out that while Zubaida was an important radical Islamist, his importance was probably overstated (see Shortly After March 28, 2002).
Tortured While in US Custody - Once Zubaida has sufficiently recovered from his injuries, he is taken to a secret CIA prison in Thailand for more interrogation. [Observer, 6/13/2004; New York Review of Books, 3/15/2009] One unnamed CIA official will later say: “He received the finest medical attention on the planet. We got him in very good health, so we could start to torture him.” [Suskind, 2006, pp. 94-96, 100] Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld publicly vows that Zubaida will not be tortured, but it will later come out that he was (see Mid-May 2002 and After and April - June 2002). [New York Times, 4/14/2002]

Entity Tags: Pakistan Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, National Security Council, Donald Rumsfeld, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Al-Qaeda, Bush administration (43), Abu Zubaida

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Complete 911 Timeline

Rayed Abdullah.Rayed Abdullah. [Source: Scoop]Rayed Abdullah, an associate of hijacker pilot Hani Hanjour (see October 1996-December 1997 and October 1996-Late April 1999), enters New Zealand despite being on the watch list there and takes further pilot training. The New Zealand government claims it only ascertains his real identity after he has been in the country several months. Abdullah is then arrested and deported to Saudi Arabia, even though he was traveling on a Yemeni passport. [Associated Press, 6/9/2006; New Zealand Herald, 6/10/2006] However, FBI agents and CIA officers later say that the US released Abdullah after 9/11 in an attempt to use him to spy on al-Qaeda for Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency. The CIA ensures he is allowed into New Zealand as a part of a joint operation. However, the New Zealanders get cold feet when Abdullah starts flight training again. A CIA official will say: “[W]e know if Rayed was part of the [9/11] plot, someone in al-Qaeda will reach out for him, and we have a chance of making that connection.” An FBI official will comment: “The amazing thing is the CIA convinced itself that by getting [Abdullah] tossed out of New Zealand, he would then be trusted and acceptable to Saudi intelligence and useful in al-Qaeda operations. For this tiny chance of success they put passengers at risk to enter into a partnership with Saudi intelligence.” [Stories that Matter, 10/9/2006]

Entity Tags: Central Intelligence Agency, Rayed Abdullah

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

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